But cracks are starting to appear in the once-united front presented by loyalists who stood by Assad throughout his battle to crush the opposition. A rare eruption of criticism in Russian media outlets has drawn attention to his dependence on foreign allies — Iran as well as Russia — for his survival.
Most important, an imploding economy is driving Syrians into poverty on a scale unprecedented in recent history. Neither Russia nor Iran is in a position to inject the billions of dollars Syria needs to rebuild and revive, yet Assad continues to reject the political reforms that might open the doors to Western and Gulf Arab funding.
Even as a third of the country still lies beyond Assad’s control, the stirrings of a new rebellion in the southern province of Daraa speak to the potential for a fresh insurgency in areas that have been recaptured by the government.
Assad may be more vulnerable now than at any time in the past nine years of war, said Lina Khatib of the Chatham House think tank in London.
“Assad has become highly reliant on Iranian and Russian support. He does not have the domestic resources to deliver to his constituents. He does not have international legitimacy, and he does not have the military power he had before the conflict,” Khatib said. “His toolbox is empty, and he is actually more vulnerable than ever.”
Deepening family rift
A very public spat between Assad and his first cousin Rami Makhlouf is just one symptom of the deepening troubles. Makhlouf resorted to Facebook to complain about attempts by the state to confiscate his assets, indicating that he no longer can communicate directly with the president.
In a series of increasingly threatening postings, Makhlouf has made it clear he won’t willingly hand over the more than $600 million the government says he owes in back taxes and duties. He has hinted at his capacity to wreak havoc on the Syrian economy through his control of a network of companies that employs thousands of Syrians and includes the mighty Syriatel mobile phone network, the nation’s biggest company.
“I didn’t give up during the war,” he said in the most recent video, posted last week. “You think I’m going to give up under these circumstances? Turns out you don’t know me.”
The targeting of Makhlouf coincides with a broader effort to force the newly powerful Syrian business elites who have profited from the war to hand over cash to support the struggling economy. More than that, Assad appears to be trying to recoup some of the influence that has become dispersed among the warlord-like businessmen, many of whom, including Makhlouf, run militias alongside their commercial enterprises, Khatib said.
But by going after his own cousin, Assad has taken his power grab to the heart of the ruling family.
“It’s very serious. It’s different from squeezing the other business executives,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a former friend and confidant of Assad’s who defected in 2008 and…
Go to the news source: Syria’s Assad confronts economic crisis, Russian tensions and family feud